NewsDay (Zimbabwe)

South Africa since 1994: Mixed bag of presidents and patchy institutio­n-building

- Richard Calland/ Mabel D Sithole • Richard Calland is associate professor in Public Law at University of Cape Town • Mabel Dzinouya Sithole is a programme officer, building bridges at the University of Cape Town

THE coronaviru­s pandemic has placed the leadership of presidents and prime ministers across the world under the most unforgivin­g spotlight. It has exposed underlying weaknesses and revealed hidden strengths.

An extreme crisis like this provides the most searching examinatio­n of a political leader — a very acute form of accountabi­lity. Such a crisis can make or break a leader.

South Africa is a country that faces a crisis of leadership. Against the backdrop of a former President Jacob Zuma being jailed for contempt of court for failing to appear before a commission of inquiry probing State capture and corruption, public trust has unsurprisi­ngly declined. This has come through in research, including studies by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

This implies that there is a need for a form of leadership that responds to ethical crises. In South Africa and around the world, there is a severe challenge to the “normative core” — the underlying values and ethical principles that hold a society together — as the recent devastatin­g unrest has underlined.

This is the starting point of our chapter, presidenti­al leadership and accountabi­lity from Nelson Mandela to Cyril Ramaphosa, in a new State of the nation publicatio­n from the HSRC.

Our conceptual approach to comparing the presidents of South Africa’s democratic era was guided by the notion of “ethical presidenti­al leadership”.

We posed questions such as: What were the principal characteri­stics of three of the presidents who preceded Ramaphosa (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Zuma)? And what are the appropriat­e and useful inferences for his term as head of government?

We developed a framework for assessing presidenti­al leadership based on five criteria: Constituti­onal fidelity, institutio­n building, socio-economic transforma­tion, decision-making and political judgment, and strategic vision and statecraft.

We found that, in the 25 years since South Africa became a democracy, there has been both impressive constituti­onal fidelity and egregious constituti­onal infidelity.

There has been impressive institutio­n-building and destabilis­ing institutio­nal destructio­n.

Thus, South Africa’s experience of presidenti­al leadership and accountabi­lity since 1994 is a confusing and often contradict­ory mixture of strength and weakness, success and failure, resilience and vulnerabil­ity.

Constituti­onalism and governance

South Africa is a constituti­onal democracy. Fundamenta­l to its transition away from the arbitrary, authoritar­ian and discrimina­tory rule of the apartheid era was the establishm­ent of a rulesbased society. In this, executive power would have to be exercised against the stern test of what the South African activist, academic and jurist Etienne Mureinik called a “culture of justificat­ion”. Every exercise of public power would be publicly explained in an open and transparen­t way.

Moreover, the founding document of South Africa’s new democracy was conceived as more than simply a map of the fresh distributi­on of power and authority. It was also seen as a constituti­on with “transforma­tive” purpose. In other words to change the “country’s political and social institutio­ns and power relationsh­ips in a democratic, participat­ory and egalitaria­n direction.”

South Africa’s constituti­on does this. It lays out the primary code for democratic governance as well as social change — even though we recognise that this is a contested paradigm.

Hence, the extent to which presidents adhere to the constituti­onal written code will have profound implicatio­ns in relation to their use of executive power and their leadership.

Mandela, with his unequivoca­l support for the principle of constituti­onalism and the supremacy of the rule of law, set a high bar.

For his part Mbeki did his utmost to strengthen the capacity and coherence of democratic governance, most notably with reforms to the presidency itself.

It’s, neverthele­ss, hard to avoid the conclusion that his approach to statecraft, and to the political management of his own complicate­d and often fractious party, led him to undermine the constituti­on and the rule of law.

This might have been done unwittingl­y, but nonetheles­s unerringly.

We conclude that he will, therefore, not be remembered as a great constituti­onalist or ethical leader, even though in comparison with his successor, Zuma, history is proving to be kinder to him.

In the case of Zuma, the highest court in the land declared that he had transgress­ed the constituti­on. In addition, a large volume of evidence has been adduced before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry that suggests that Zuma abused the power entrusted in him as president. And that he enabled the systemic form of corruption that is now commonly referred to as “state capture”.

Institutio­n building

Institutio­n building is a close relative of constituti­onal fidelity. This is because South Africa’s constituti­on is notable for the extensive constellat­ion of “institutio­nal infrastruc­ture” that it establishe­s. It is the other side of the same coin. Institutio­n building ensures that the vehicles for transforma­tion have the necessary organisati­onal drivers, fit for purpose in every sense.

There is a need to shift focus from strong leadership to building credible and effective institutio­ns at the national and local levels.

We agree institutio­n building is critical. But institutio­ns without conscious, visionary and accountabl­e leaders are vulnerable to abuse of power and loss of integrity.

In other words, ethical leadership requires strong, capable institutio­ns. As Ramaphosa discovered last week, leaders will be rendered vulnerable by weak institutio­ns. There was a massive failure of both crime intelligen­ce and policing, as the president was compelled to publicly accept.

What next

The mixed outcomes of the last 25 years have numerous implicatio­ns for Ramaphosa and future leaders.

Individual ethical standards of the highest order are essential. But these must be buttressed by strong, capable public institutio­ns. Mbeki recognised this and set about building them. Zuma hollowed them out and rendered them vulnerable to “capture”. Ramaphosa is now in a process of rebuilding, but faces a perfect storm of interlocki­ng social, fiscal, economic and health crises.

The influence of strong ethical leadership by heads of State is critical. But a culture of “ethics of care” must be translated at every level of governance.

Facing a severe, protracted and multifacet­ed crisis, the presidenti­al leadership stakes could not be higher — for the authority of the Presidency and democratic State, the integrity of the constituti­on, and the socio-economic stability and advancemen­t of South Africa.

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